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New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

By Benjamin O'Donnell - posted Friday, 25 January 2008

A lot has been written about a group of recent best-selling authors that, back in November 2006, Wired Magazine dubbed "the new atheists". Principally, they are the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), the neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and the journalist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great and The Portable Atheist).

These authors have not just sold a lot of books (over 1.5 million for the English language edition of The God Delusion alone). Dawkins runs a website with a lot of traffic and has started a charitable foundation in the US and the UK. Harris has smaller, but similar projects. Hitchens takes on all comers in his inimitably confrontational style. Google any of their names or the phrases "new atheist" or "new atheism" and you'll see a torrent of arguments, for and against. The “new atheists” are clearly trying to start and sustain an intellectual movement.

What is strange is that, when one actually reads them, one gets the feeling that the real target of the "new atheists" isn't religion at all.


Indeed, they all explicitly say they have little or no problem with deism, or Spinozian pantheism or what Dawkins calls "Einstein-ian religion". Harris, Dennett and Hitchens (and possibly Dawkins) have indicated that they wouldn't necessarily want to see the synagogues, churches and mosques emptied, though they would want to see them abandon their “metaphysical bullshit” (see this video towards the end).

It seems that the new atheists’ real problem is with dogma, and specifically with the dogma of religious faith - with the belief that it is acceptable, even admirable, to believe propositions without logically sound reasons based on good evidence. They aren't really the “new atheists” at all, but the “new anti-dogmatists”.

So, what's the problem with dogma?

The forms that dogmatically believed propositions can take are potentially infinite. One might dogmatically believe in the historical inevitability of a communist utopia, under which the State will wither away, after a brief but necessary period of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Or one might dogmatically believe in the existence of something called the Aryan race, in its inherent superiority to all other races, and in the inherent inferiority and perfidy of the Jewish race.

Or one might dogmatically believe that the creator of the universe called on one's religion to convert the world, or take it by force through holy war; that death in the defence of (or attempt to reconquer) lands so acquired is the greatest of all actions; and that such martyrs will go to paradise after they die to be attended by 72 virgin brides and joined in due course be all their family and loved-ones.

Or one might dogmatically believe that the creator of the universe condemns condom use as a sin.


What all four of these beliefs have in common is that there is very little or no evidence for them and there is much evidence against them. Yet all four beliefs have at times been passionately believed and acted upon by otherwise rational, sane and civilised people - often resulting in those people performing some of the most irrational, insane and barbaric acts imaginable.

The physicist Steven Weinberg has said that, left alone, “you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” If you change the word “religion” to “dogma” or “faith” you have my view - and the view I suspect people like Weinberg, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris are really getting at.

Thankfully, Fascist, Nazi and Communist dogmas have been so discredited that almost no one believes them any more. This is a development to be celebrated. But as the events of New York and Washington DC and Bali and Madrid and London demonstrate; and as demonstrated by the genocidally stupid anti-contraceptive policies of the Catholic church in Africa; and the homicidally stupid stem-cell policies of Christian churches in the US, religious dogmas are alive and kicking and at work in the world today.

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About the Author

Benjamin O'Donnell is a Sydney lawyer.

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